On a recent Sunday evening, at the private club Norwood on 14th Street, designer Michael Kors was explaining the appeal of the gladiator sandal, the shoe New Yorkers are not going to be able to escape this summer. “It’s comfortable and powerful,” he said. “What could be better? Sexy, comfortable and powerful all at once. It works with any length; you can wear it with a short dress, wear it with a long dress, wear it with shorts … If you’re wearing really simple clothes, it kind of gives you a little edge, a little punch.”
This was a party honoring the Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards nominees, and the aggressive accessory du jour was out in full force, encasing the feet of everyone from the actress Ashley Olson (high-heeled, black and strappy, paired with short shorts and a blazer) to the female servers wearing spare, proletarian versions as they proffered pork skewers.
Designer Cynthia Rowley sported a pair of her own design: nude platforms with a faux armor-plate stretching over the front of her foot and extending to the ankle. They looked like a softer version of the now-impossible-to-find black $770 Dior Extreme Gladiators worn by Sarah Jessica Parker in the new Sex and the City movie. “These are sort of orthopedic Spartan shoes,” said Ms. Rowley, who said she’d been inspired by the 2006 film 300, about the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae. “They’re totally comfortable.”
Of course, the Spartans were Greek, which gladiators were not, but no matter: Footwear is having an ancient moment. The resurgent style tends to involve multiple horizontal straps and buckles, one of which usually encircles the ankle. It can be dead-flat or treacherously high, ending at the ankle or extending upward to the knee, and is often studded or bejeweled in a manner favored by aristocratic Roman women.
Initially revived by Tunisian designer Azzedine Alaia several years ago, the sandals quickly began appearing in paparazzi shots, adorning the feet of celebrity fashion warriors Kate, Sienna, Lindsay, Nicole (Kidman, not Richie), and Gwyneth (who paired a studded version by Balmain with a white Lanvin toga dress at Cannes, to some ridicule). Retail ubiquity arrived this year, when it seems every designer and mass chain from Dolce & Gabbana down to the Gap introduced one or more versions.
“They are selling better than everything,” wrote Lisa Park, vice president of women’s shoes at Barneys New York, in an e-mail. Particularly coveted by her customers are Balenciaga black-and-white gladiators ($700), Lanvin jeweled T-strap flat gladiators ($575), and gold Givenchy high-heel gladiators ($695). “Gladiators.
Gladiators. Gladiators,” Ms. Park all but cyber-shouted.
“It has really caught fire this season,” said Ed Burstell, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of accessories and footwear at Bergdorf Goodman, where gladiators are selling “amazingly well. They go with casual, they go with denim, they go with summer dresses at all lengths. They take metallics great. A lot of people look at them and think they’re kind of tough, kind of strong, but at the same time they’re substantial, they’re sexy.”
But are they? Balenciaga’s menacing spring 2008 runway take on gladiator sandals involved a black-and-white armor plate (i.e., warrior shin guard) that ended at the knee, connecting to the leg with what looked like black-and-white ropes, all atop a teeteringly high heel. (The B.C. version did not offer such altitude, though it often strapped up to the knee to give the warrior optimum fit and a full range of motion.) The actress Jennifer Connelly starred in the ad campaign, which paired the formidable footwear with an orange print minidress whose construction gave it the appearance of haute armor.
The sandals marching up and down Manhattan streets this June are mostly flat and sensible, and largely paired with frilly frocks, but they retain some of the combative quality of the Balenciagas, lending toughness to more demure summer trends like florals and high-waisted shorts. They convey the message that while we New York women may dress like our days are one long garden party, we are engaged in grave, life-or-death pursuits; that we are fighting (sometimes against each other, admittedly); that we are not soft. As Beth Buccini, co-owner of the Soho boutique Kirna Zabete, puts it: “You need something to ground the frou. Because otherwise it’s too syrupy, sickly sweet.”
Then there are more practical concerns, like the need to shield oneself from grimy city streets. “All the protection you get with all those straps wrapping all over your feet gives you the illusion of a full shoe,” said Vogue’s Sally Singer, an early gladiator enthusiast who owns versions from Dior, Alaia and (slum it, honey!) Steve Madden. “And, in fact, in most cases, a short boot with intense foot air-conditioning coming in from all sides. It’s a way of looking like your foot is fully dressed, which I think in the city more women feel comfortable with, rather than wearing something that looks like it should be on a beach.”
Gladiators’ complicated material elements make the flip-flops of yesteryear seem indeed beachy, almost undergraduate; ballet flats, a spring trend, look positively naïve and gamine by comparison, ill-suited to the mean city streets. (Yes, such is the nature of fashion today that we have gone from overly feminine to cartoonishly masculine in a single bound.)
“It gives you a sense of power—just the word, ‘gladiator!’” said Jennifer Rogers, a 20-something grad student braving the line at Shake Shack during a recent lunch hour, wearing brown leather gladiator-inspired Banana Republic sandals with rectangular copper accents.
Faye Lowe, a fashion designer visiting from New Zealand on her honeymoon, was spotted in ABC Carpet & Home wearing black patent-leather Camper gladiators. “It wasn’t as much of a trend in New Zealand as it is in New York City,” she said, shaking her head at the scale of our Roman footwear revival, the most recent of many in modern times (the model Veruschka von Lehndorff was photographed in the sandals in the 1960s, Mr. Kors pointed out). “You have to make sure they hit here,” Ms. Lowe continued, indicating her ankle bone. “Otherwise, they’re not very flattering.”
Indeed, many men are more bemused than titillated by the trend. “My boyfriend always says, ‘You should be wearing a helmet and spear!’” said Juliette, 21, a salesgirl at Intermix on Fifth Avenue, who said she owns at least five pairs of gladiators. The store had completely sold out of the platonic version of the style, though they had some ancient-“inspired” versions left.
BCBG, too, was doing a brisk business in gladiators: “There is no price resistance,” marveled Angel Ruiz, the store’s (male) manager, noting t
hat three or four models were currently on shelves and he was selling “tons and tons.” Just to dames, though! “I work in Chelsea,” Mr. Ruiz said dryly. “I would know if men started wearing them.”
The confusion over which ancient civilization produced which sandals is not easily put to rest (many designers simply use the gladiator name, though designer Phillip Lim makes a “Troy” sandal and Jimmy Choo calls its version “Atlas”).
“We don’t know as much about the ancient Greeks’ footwear as we do the Romans’,” Kristina Milnor, associate professor of classics at Barnard, told the Observer, but one painted image of Achilles from the Trojan War shows the warrior wearing sandals that involve less coverage and fewer straps than the Roman military sandals, or caligae, which gladiators (some of which must’ve been women, as female fighters were routinely outlawed) are widely presumed to have worn.
Modern high-end designers may have unmoored gladiators from their historical origins, rendering them useless for combat by adding a four-inch heel, but many 21st-century New York women scoff at such furbelows.
“I like them because they’re flats,” said Benita Robledo, 23, spotted near Union Square wearing a Grecian-looking version of the sandals that she had bought for about $16 at Payless. “I walk about eight miles a day in the city.”
“Flats sell better,” said Ms. Park of Barneys, whose fashion-forward customer base would seem the most logical audience for knee-high Balenciaga fighters.
“I think we’ve become such a flat nation, people are just used to it,” Ms. Buccini of Kirna Zabete said. “Once you get used to flats, it’s hard to go back to heels.” We have seized on gladiators, then, as the new high-fashion casual wear, bringing today’s costume fashion footwear literally to the ground. (After all, chief among Sex and the City’s less believable contentions was that a busy New York woman without a full-time driver could suffer stilettos all the time.)
Ms. Buccini and her partner, Sarah Easley, are taking the flat gladiator’s practicality one step further with their new Aurelia sandal, a collaboration with Marcia Kilgore, the founder of Bliss Spas, debuting at Kirna Zabete next week in black and snakeskin versions. Starting at $150, the Aurelia is am athletic-looking lace-up gladiator that purports to tone the leg as the wearer walks, thereby potentially bestowing gladiator-style quads along with a (temporary, anyway) sense of fashion currency.
“The list of names that we have collected is as of this morning over 400,” said Ms. Buccini, of the demand. “There is a frenzy. … A top Hollywood actress whose name I will not reveal saw a picture of it and called us frantic to have a pair, and how soon could she get them?”
Waiting lists, advance buzz, astronomical prices (Ms. Buccini also sells $895 Alaias, now 40 percent off): all conjures memories of the It bag, of a group mentality toward luxury goods that was pronounced dead several years ago. The many incarnations of the gladiator sandal generally ensure that no two friends will own the same pair (though it’s likely right now that four women walking down the street together will be wearing at least three pairs of gladiators), but in an economically depressed moment of eco-totes and cheap, mass-market turns by premier designers, might such shoes be the last real frontier of luxury statement-making? After all, a pair of Dior shoes is more affordable than a head-to-toe Dior outfit, and can be worn much more often.
“Shoes are really, really expensive right now, as are all designer clothes, and people expect a lot for their money,” said Ms. Singer of Vogue. “It’s actually not a moment when people want the subtlest, most low-key basic that they feel will last them for seasons, because, frankly, nothing ever does.” Better to lend cachet to an entire look by wearing a shoe that “looks like it’s fun, it was designed, that it’s going to make you seem funner and more fabulous for having had it,” she said. (And if we all end up in the same shoes in pursuit of our distinctiveness? So be it!)
It is also somehow easier to stomach a copy of an It shoe than an It bag, both because it is inherently further from the eye and because the heel will be ground down by the end of the summer anyway.
Still, a confused outsider might ask himself what has compelled a city of modern, liberated women to cage their dainty, painted feet in leather straps like an ancient troop of slaves who spilled each other’s blood for sport? In our eternal hunt for a “tough” sensibility to counteract our more trivial feminine adornments, perhaps it makes sense that we would compare ourselves to the Romans, who had their elegance but also their baseness.
“They had things like the gladiator games, where people paid to see other people kill each other, but also a lot of very high culture,” said Professor Minor of Barnard. “They had this sort of harsh, hard underside to them.”
Follow Meredith Bryan via RSS.